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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

Have a Long List of Assignments for Students? You Might Want to Rethink That

What research says can help students get more done
By Todd Rogers — November 08, 2023 1 min read
How do I help students who forget to do important tasks?
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How do I help students who forget to do important tasks?

You can guide kids in prioritizing assignments to make sure the most important ones don’t get lost in the shuffle. Here’s something I wrote about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

One morning, I left a note on the counter for my daughter, asking her to take care of three things before going to school:

Hey Kiddo!

This morning, please remember to:

1. Circle which of the two shirts on the printout you want me to order for you.

2. Bring your new pencils to school.

3. Complete the form on the table and bring it to school (should take ~5 minutes).

The shirt and pencils were easy. The form required more effort, but it was much more important. The night before, we’d discussed the consequences of not getting it done: She wouldn’t be eligible for a sports team she wanted to play on.

Later that day, I saw that she wanted the green shirt and the pencils were gone. But the blank form was still on the table.

I had only three requests. How could she have skipped the most important one?

Research finds that when we ask people to do multiple tasks, with an easy one and a hard one, most people do the easy one first. Psychologists call this tendency the smaller tasks trap, which leaves people vulnerable to getting distracted before they can complete the harder one. Other research finds that asking people to do a lot of tasks can result in them doing fewer in total than asking them to do a smaller number from the start.

Looking back, I should have taken stock of my priorities that morning and only asked my daughter to deal with the form. I wanted the shirt chosen and the pencils packed, but they could be done on another day—one when they wouldn’t distract her from a more important assignment.

Don’t create long task lists for students. Too many requests can lead to fewer getting done.

Do prioritize what you ask of young people. This may mean holding off on some easier, less important tasks, but it can be worth it. Being selective in what you ask for can accomplish more in the long run.

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The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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